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Ohio's creative design reputation finally catching up with its legacy

University of Cincinnati College of DAAP Associate Dean Craig Vogel. Photos Scott Beseler
University of Cincinnati College of DAAP Associate Dean Craig Vogel. Photos Scott Beseler

For years, Ohio has been a quiet powerhouse in the worlds of industrial design, architecture, communications design and brand marketing. Problem was, few people outside the state noticed.

No more. The Buckeye state's reputation, particularly along the I-71 corridor from Cleveland to Cincinnati, is charging to the forefront.

"The whole state has a strong design culture, especially in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, and has had for a long time," explains University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) Associate Dean Craig Vogel, a veteran of the design meccas of New York and Chicago. "The problem is, Ohio didn't have the reputation to match. I think it's part of the Midwest ethic where you don't talk about the work, you just do it."

Midwestern reticence is giving way to outside recognition of a number of Buckeye design programs and billions of dollars in Fortune 500 company investment into Ohio design work.

In the academic world, DAAP and its northern brethren like Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) and Ohio State University's Department of Design are no strangers to accolades.

In November, DAAP was ranked No. 1 in the country for its undergraduate interior design program by DesignIntelligence, an annual poll by employers in the field, while its industrial design and architecture programs earned spots in the poll's top rankings. Meanwhile, the CIA grabbed a top-five ranking for its industrial design program, and OSU trumpets a No. 5 ranking for its graduate program from U.S. News and World Report. The only states with more design programs ranked as highly are New York and California, states with an enormous population advantage, Vogel points out.

"There's simply no other place like Ohio for design. Ohio has probably the highest number of designers per capita and truly talented designers than anywhere else in the country, possibly the world," Vogel explains.

Cleveland Institute of Art's Dan Cuffaro, a design chair and professor of industrial design at CIA, agrees, saying all he's had to do was look around at professional conferences for confirmation.

"Anywhere you go, about one-third of people work in Ohio now, trained here or worked here at one time," he says. "The only thing new is that the state's reputation is finally catching up with the reality."

Ohio's heightened reputation has caught the eye of big business, which increased its investment in the state's design programs and poured money into Ohio design firms.

National companies with local ties like Procter & Gamble and Kroger in Cincinnati and American Greetings in Cleveland started tapping into Ohio's design culture, as did others like General Electric, plumbing fixture giant Moen and cabinet monolith Craftmade.

Cuffaro points to the 2000 deal that Cleveland design firm Nottingham-Spirk completed with Procter & Gamble for the "SpinBrush" electric toothbrush as the kind of project that has spurred more attention for the state as well as more business for its design companies. The small company parlayed a $1.5-million investment in developing and marketing the toothbrush into a $475-million deal with P&G, owner of the Crest brand. P&G sold the rights to the SpinBrush in 2005, but not before the product became its 12th billion-dollar brand and helped Crest regain the top market rank.

"Ohio's had a strong design community not for just the last few years, but for the past 70 years, and when a relatively small company like Nottingham-Spirk does something like that, people notice," Cuffaro explains.

Remarkably, Ohio's design position grew organically, without a united effort from the state's top programs or business partners.

Up north, Cleveland has long been at the epicenter of industrial design. CIA professor Viktor Schreckengost is credited with founding the first industrial design program in the United States there, counting design leaders over the next 30 years among his students. The area's now home to more than 40 consumer product brands.

CIA and Cleveland State University are working on a project to extend the city's designing reputation by creating a neighborhood with "density of design activity."

"We saw that we were missing something," explains Dr. Ned Hill, proponent of the "District of Design" and dean of Cleveland State's Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. "We didn't have a strong localized design culture. Corporations realize the value of designers, but they tend to hide them in cube-farms in butler buildings at the end of exit ramps."

The project's goal is to bring those talents into one area where they can thrive on creativity and share ideas, something Cincinnati already enjoys eight design firms specializing in brand marketing call downtown Cincinnati home.

Those firms, including LPK, a huge independent brand agency, San Francisco-based Landor and the headquarters for FRCH Design Worldwide are building upon the Queen City's own particular history. Experts trace the birth of branding to Cincinnati, where a P&G junior manager's 1931 memo sparked the idea of the all-encompassing field, from research and manufacturing to advertising and sales.

And like their northern neighbors' affinity for industrial design, Cincinnati has fed off that history and the wealth of designing talent spawned by DAAP.

"The city has a strong industrial base with companies like P&G, Macy's and Kroger, companies with a history of design innovation that operate far outside of the city," Vogel explains. "The design firms that clustered around them bolstered those relationships and are branching out worldwide themselves."

Cincinnati's design firms now count offices in places like England, Germany and China, and count worldwide brands such as IBM, AT&T, Samsung and FedEx among their clients, helping push Cincinnati's design influence internationally.

Like Cleveland, Cincinnati design isn't resting on its laurels. In 2005, seven local branding firms banded together to form the Brand Design Alliance to further the city's reputation and market share. Meanwhile, DAAP continues to find projects to keep at the forefront of the design world. Its latest is the Live Well Collaborative, a partnership with several companies, including P&G, General Mills, LG, Citi and Hill-Rom, that involves its students and faculty working to create product designs with the 50-plus consumer in mind. It's a model that's already being copied nationally.

Less noticeably, OSU is increasingly working closer with the central Ohio arms of international design firms like Fitch WPP Co. to enhance its position in the design world, says OSU Design Professor Noel Mayo. In return, the university's design program has doubled its grant total from just a few years ago.

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